Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today I am at All Saints, South Hadley, home to Mount Holyoke College. As mentioned in my sermon, below, I've been there many times before but this is my first time preaching there. It's been fifteen weeks since the Feast of Pentecost - the readings for this day can be found here.

What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us? This is the question on the hearts of Joseph’s brothers in today’s Old Testament reading. You will remember, I’m sure, that they are the ones who left him in a pit and sold him off to some Midianite traders, but not before they first contemplated killing him. Something to do with that multi-colored dreamcoat, and because dad always loved him more. In the end I guess selling him to those Midianite traders was an act of mercy, but it probably didn’t feel that way from the pit.

You will recall (even if it’s from the Broadway version of these events) how things went from there: the sexual abuse accusation from Potipher’s wife that landed Joseph in jail, his release from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s anxious dreams, his rise in Pharaoh’s cabinet as Secretary of Agriculture. Joseph is no longer the “little brother” when we see him today. He’s got lots of power and these brothers come from a land that has been suffering from a famine. Given that he now has all this power, they are afraid that he’s about to use that power to seek revenge. That he will, as we heard, “pay them back in full.” You know how it goes: what goes around, comes around. I mean, they have it coming. Joseph knows it. The brothers know it. We, the readers, know it.

What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?

Joseph chooses to forgive them. He chooses to let that old grudge go. He chooses to see the hand of God in his past that leads toward forgiveness in the present and hopefully toward reconciliation in the future. He is, where he is, because of all that has happened and well, it is what it is. This is a holy moment to witness, when old grudges are left in the past and no longer define the present, or what is possible, with God’s help.

I want to ask you to hold all of this for a moment or two, and perhaps reflect on grudges you’ve held in your own life, or grudges that have been held against you. Grudges where there’s been an opportunity to “pay them back in full” and grudges that have been let go of. Hold that, if you would, for a moment or two and I’ll circle back. I promise…

Some of you know who I am and some don’t. And I know who some of you are and some I’ve not yet met. I work as one of the two Canons to the Ordinary in this diocese – the ordinary is a fancy Latin derivative for the Bishop, the one who ordains. If I were a Lutheran I’d be called “Assistant to the Bishop,” but Canon to the Ordinary sounds that much more impressive, doesn’t it?

I’ve been in this church building many times over the past two decades or so; I’m guessing more than twenty and probably more than that. Before I held this position, I was the rector of St. Francis in Holden for fifteen years. I’ve been here for Diocesan Clergy Days and Continuing Ed events and I’ve been here for Commission on Ministry Meetings when Betsy Fowle was the chair, before I took over from her. I’ve been here for meetings for General Convention Deputies. It’s a pretty central location as Tanya likes to remind us at Diocesan House. I’ve been here to meet with your rector and executive committee and vestry and I was here for Chip Doherty’s retirement party. And I was here when Lawrence House was blessed and those first Lawrence House interns were commissioned. In fact the picture Vicki Ix uses on my diocesan bio was taken here in South Hadley at that great event. But this is my first time in this pulpit. I’m grateful for the opportunity and I hope it’s not my last chance.

I love this building, and as I said, it works as a meeting place for many, not just members of this congregation. But I learned in Sunday School (and maybe some of you did too) that the Church is not a building, but a people. That I am the Church, and you are the Church, and we are the Church together. And I think we have to keep saying that until we believe it, and once we believe it, we need to live it. In other words, the work that sends you out from this place as the people of God called to love your neighbors defines you.

Part of spiritual growth—for an individual and for a parish—is to pause every now and again and figure out what our gifts are, what our ministry truly is, so that those gifts can be shared for the sake of the gospel. Sometimes ministries need to die because they belong to the vision of a past generation and we have neither the time nor the passion nor the energy to do them any longer. Letting go is usually accompanied by grief. In the work I do with congregations in transition, congregations that are seeking new clergy in particular, I often remind them that in spite of what we usually say about Episcopalians resisting change, it is not so much change we really resist as loss. When we move forward, we lose something from the past and that involves some emotional work. We are a people who do not ever believe death is the last word, so we can let go in hope. But that doesn’t make it easy.

Sometimes new ministries are born as someone comes up with an idea, with a hunch, with a hunger. And then by God’s grace and with the help of others and the stars aligning, that vision is implemented. I think of Lawrence House as mustard-seed-like parable of that not just for you at All Saints, but for all of us in this diocese. And we are seeing that growth as Lawrence House comes into its own. So thank you all for that good work toward fulfilling God’s mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.

Now, do you remember where I began? With grudges. Joseph’s brothers worry he may still have a grudge against them, which would be for good reason if he did. They worry that now that he’s in power he will repay them. But instead he shows mercy. And in showing mercy he claims all that has been as part of God’s work in the world. He models forgiveness in a very real and specific family situation. I want to suggest here today among God’s people gathered at this Table on this September morning that we are called to do the same; that we need to do the same to bear witness to a polarized world that God is love.

Today’s gospel reading from Matthew comes to us from a first-century community in Syria, probably Antioch. They didn’t yet have a building, but they gathered in each other’s homes. Their specific struggles and concerns were different from those in Jerusalem or Rome or Springfield or South Hadley. But there, as anywhere where two or three are gathered together, there was a need for forgiveness. How hard that can be: both to accept that God forgives us and that we are called to forgive others!

How often, Jesus is asked. As many as seven times? Jesus says no, more than that. It’s not clear whether he says seventy seven times or seventy times seven; the text is ambiguous. Since some of you may not yet be awake and I didn’t warn you there would be math this morning, I’ll just say that seventy times seven equals 490. But whether it’s 77 times or 490 times, it’s a lot.

Have you ever noticed that Jesus prefers telling stories to setting down dogmatic rules? Jesus invites people to reflection. He doesn’t “lord it over” his disciples. He doesn’t preach at people. Instead he tells stories that invite them to see things in a new way and to change our perspective. Jesus doesn’t say, “you better forgive 77 times or else you are going to hell…” The Church has had a tendency to add that sort of thing, which I think can leave people paralyzed and feeling like they don’t measure up. Instead, Jesus tells a story. Only because most of us don’t understand the first-century Roman monetary system we tend to miss the point, or skip over it. But let’s linger a bit with a little more math if you are up for it. One denarii is equal to one day’s wages. There are ten thousand denarii in one talent. To put that another way, one talent is like thirty years wages. That’s one talent but the parable says that the guy is in debt ten thousand talents, which is to say something like a billion dollars – a ridiculously huge amount of debt equal to that of some small nations.

It’s an absurd number. This is Middle Eastern hyperbole which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus is exaggerating. Now this debt is forgiven. The guy in turn is owed a comparably small debt, but nevertheless a not insignificant one. One hundred denarii is like three month’s wages. So let’s call it $15,000. The guy who has just been forgiven a billion dollar debt now wants every penny of what he believes he has coming to him. I think we are meant to laugh when we hear this story but after the laughter may come some tears, and some questions, and some self-reflection. Many of us have a tendency to get focused on the hurt done to us more than on the hurt we’ve done to others which I think is the reason for the Middle Eastern hyperbole here to help us see that. We tend to focus on the grudges we must hold onto rather than the ones we have been forgiven for. So we might wonder – and I’m not asking for volunteers here because we are, after all, Episcopalians, but in the quiet of our own hearts we might wonder: when have I been like the forgiver? Like the forgiven? When I have I held onto a grudge longer than I needed to? We pray at least once a week as we gather that we might forgive others as we have been forgiven. Do we dare to live as if we believe that?

Yes, that’s hard. And yes people really do hurt us. My experience teaches me, however, that when we get stuck it is very often ourselves that we hurt for we let the other continue to control us and take up residence in our heads. True freedom in Christ is about letting go. Again, think of Joseph. All those years he didn’t have his brothers in his life. Now he has a choice: to keep that status quo or to open the door to a new future. To hold on to that grudge or to let it go. Where forgiveness happens, creativity and energy for ministry are unleashed, on all sides.

In his short story, “The Capital of the World,” Ernest Hemingway tells the story of a Spanish father and his teenage son. It’s the story of a strained and eventually shattered relationship that causes the boy, Paco, to run away from home. Like the father of the prodigal son, this father in this story longs to welcome his son home, and so he goes in search of him. When he comes to Madrid he places an ad in the newspaper which reads:

Dear Paco, Please meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. Love, Father

The next day, at noon, there are 800 Pacos at the newspaper office, all of them apparently seeking forgiveness from their fathers.

There are worse ways, I am convinced, than to be known than as the Church where love is unleashed through the power of forgiveness. I truly believe this takes us to the very heart of Biblical faith, in both the old and new testaments. In a world of shrill polarities, I think it offers real hope for the world for us to proclaim not only with our lips, but our lives:  Paco, Tanya, Shalom, Chip, Rebecca, Susan, Terry - all is forgiven. 

May we forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven, in the name of the living God. That isn't the end of the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, but surely it is a good place to begin. 

Monday, September 11, 2017


Seven years ago, I was still serving as the rector of St. Francis Church. The Sunday we celebrated "Welcome Back" Sunday fell on September 12, and I reflected on 9/11. I've left my sermon notes "unedited" for this post - it's seven years old but perhaps still, in some ways, relevant to the emotions of this day. 

The lectionary is a way to read the Bible in public worship, as we come together each week for common prayer. It’s a template, organized on a three-year cycle. What that means is that the same readings that we heard today come up every three years: we last heard them in September 2007 and they will not be read again until September 2013.

This also means that these are the very same readings we heard nine years ago, on the weekend after September 11, 2001. Some of you may remember, as I do, that there were people here for worship that weekend that I’d never seen before, and whom I have not seen since. They came, I imagine, looking for a word of hope and comfort in the midst of events that were too frightening to comprehend. You could have heard a pin drop when the lay reader got up to read from the fourth chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, these same difficult words we heard today:

"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

What struck me, more perhaps in hindsight than in that exact moment, was that as brutally harsh as Jeremiah’s words sounded as they filled this room, that they also seemed to capture where we were emotionally. We, too, had just beheld what can happen when people put their talents to work for doing evil rather than good. We too, beheld a city in ruins. Jeremiah of course, did not have lower Manhattan in mind when he spoke nearly six hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was speaking about the city of Jerusalem being “waste and void” because of the devastation caused by the Babylonian army.  He was speaking of the temple, not the towers, being brought to the ground. 

Even so, on that September day nine years ago it seemed as if the gap between Jeremiah and us had been closed, and we were together in our confusion and grief and fear and anger. The biggest theological question of all was right up front as well: where was God?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophet is not only the one who hears God’s voice, but the one who can feel God’s heart. Heschel had no patience with the “god” of the philosophers – Aristotle’s famous “Unmoved Mover.” As Heschel read the Bible (and especially the prophets) he discovered what he called the pathos of God. The God of the Bible, he said, is a God who loves us even when we do behave like stupid children who have no understanding; a God who loves us even to the point of Her own broken heart. Jeremiah imagines God more like a frustrated Parent than an Unmoved Mover: “I’ve done everything I can,” God says. “I created humanity in my own image. I gave them the gift of Torah, a gift “sweeter than honey.” How on earth could they have messed things up so badly?”

Prophets like Jeremiah push us way out of our comfort zones. But they do so for a reason: they are trying to push us hard enough and far enough out of our denial so that we will take another look at our lives and the world around us, so that we will see the parts of ourselves and the world that we would prefer to cover up. They do this not to depress us but to wake us up, so that we can truly live. When tragedy strikes, we ask, “where is God?” The answer that the prophets give is one we don’t usually want to hear: that God has been holding up God’s end of the bargain, and the real question is this: where are God’s people?

Most of us can’t bear too much reality, and we don’t really want to hear about the pain of the world. Denial is one response; getting numb is another—and we have any number of options in our time to help us get numb. Flannery O’Connor once said, “to the hard of hearing you need to shout.” I’ve always thought that is as good an image of what the prophets are up to as any. They seem like mad men at times, shouting away. But they have the difficult task of breaking through our defenses to get us to see what we prefer not to see.  Nine years ago our collective defenses were ripped down, and so Jeremiah’s hard words hardly needed for the preacher to say more. But what about today, on these waning days of late summer nine years later?  

When I thought about what to say as ministries start back up again this weekend, I confess that I thought a lot about avoiding Jeremiah altogether for something happier. But as I prayed and reflected on these texts, I realized again that Jeremiah lived through hard times and he refused to sugarcoat the realities of the pain and hardship of the Babylonian Captivity. This first decade of this millennium has also been a very difficult and polarizing time for our nation and for the wider Church as well. We are not immune from all of that here at St. Francis. It seems to me that we come to church not for sugarcoating but for a dose of reality, and that our several callings to ministry take us not to some dream world that we wish existed but more deeply into this world, with all of its warring madness and all of its challenges. It also seems more obvious to me on this ninth anniversary of 9/11 more than any that have gone before that we’ve not yet grieved, and because we have not yet grieved we have not moved on. We are collectively, as a nation, stuck.  

From the perspective of hindsight we know that the road ahead for Jeremiah and the Babylonian exiles would be a long one, as in something like a half century or so. We don’t like to hear such things, of course, in a culture that wants “closure” as fast as possible. We want someone to make it all better for us as quickly as possible and in the absence of a quick fix then there is always blame, or denial, or getting numb. But it is worth remembering that even through those decades of the Babylonian exile, Jeremiah was able to imagine the dawn of a new day, and to speak of hope. If you can stay with that old bull-frog of a prophet all the way to chapter thirty-one, you do find good news. There he begins to talk about the day when God at long last will write the law not on tablets of stone, but on people’s hearts. That law is the law of love.

As followers of Jesus Christ, love is a non-negotiable. We are held in love and because of that we are called to love others. It is the core value that defines who we are and if we can’t live out of that core value in difficult times then it is really nonsense to pretend that it matters. If we cannot live out of and into that love when times are tough, then it’s nothing more than sentimentality. Love is not the same as being nice, or of liking everyone. Faithful people in Jeremiah’s day as in ours will and do disagree on many things. But in the Church, at least, we are called to disagree without polarizing and demonizing the other, for Christ’s sake. It is in this world that nearly a decade after 9/11 remains fearful, embittered, and grieving that you and I are called to serve, to speak up, and to act as “instruments of God’s peace.” It is in this world that we are called to preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary to use words. As in Jeremiah’s day, and centuries later in Corinth, so we too must remember that the law of love “is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude…it does not insist on its own way but strives for the truth.”

I didn’t agree with former President Bush on very much. But I admired and respected him when he went to the Washington Islamic Center on September 17, 2001, less than one week after 9/11. There, as you may recall, he said that Islam is a religion of peace and that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 had nothing to do with the teachings of Islam or the sincere Muslims of the world who deplore terrorism. He went on to say that those who inflict harm on innocent Muslims are “just as wrong” as those who carry out terrorist attacks.

Nine years later, as a nation we seem to be in danger of forgetting that insight. In places like Gainsville, Florida and Murfreesboro, Tennessee and even at Ground Zero itself we are in danger of acting like the First Amendment applies to everyone except Muslims. We are in danger of letting fear and ignorance and blame beat down our better angels.

As Christians, you and I are called to do better than that: we are called to love our neighbors even when we may not agree with them. This past week, in the midst all of the talk about burning Korans in Florida, the American Bible Association said it would stand in solidarity with Muslims by offering a program to give away two Korans for every one burned. This gesture  was, it seems to me, a courageous witness rooted in Biblical faith. Maybe the only good thing that came out of this last couple of weeks of media circus in Florida is that people on the right and on the left were united in the belief that burning books, and especially holy books, is never a good idea.

Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us. My job as a preacher and pastor—and our work as “all of the people” called to share ministry in Christ’s name—is to remind one another of what we already know: that perfect love really does cast out fear.

There is a prayer found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer that to my mind fits for this occasion. We remember, of course, those who died on 9/11 and we pray for their families and friends. But out of that reality may we also offer a prayer for the whole human family as we remember the work God has given us to do. Let us, then, pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look   with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Today is the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. I am covering today at Christ Church, Rochdale for the priest-in-charge, who is on maternity leave.

I think I’ve been to Christ Church more Sundays than any other congregation in our diocese since I accepted this position on Bishop Fisher’s staff four years ago. It’s an honor to be back here with you all today and I look forward to being back here again in October as well before Aileen returns from her maternity leave.

There is a lot going on in the world. We will and we should keep the folks in Charlottesville and Houston and in Cuba and Florida in our prayers today. All of these places represent opportunities for the Church to be the Church: for us to be light and salt and yeast and to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. I am going to go in a different direction today, but please don’t read that as suggesting these prayer concerns are not on my mind and heart. They are…

I want to say something that I hope is not news to anyone here, but it’s so important from time to time to step back and remember it. Here goes: behind every Biblical text that we hear in church each week is a particular context, a unique place and time where the living God was experienced. Someone wrote it down later, but the Bible didn’t just “plop down” from heaven.

Let me say this again another way. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John aren’t running around with clip-boards like vestry clerks taking notes on everything Jesus said and did contemporaneously. Rather, communities remembered the stories, over decades. They told them at coffee hour and when they gathered to break the bread and share the cup and around campfires. They remembered the stories and then forty and even fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, someone said “hey, we should write this stuff down so that we can share it with our children and our children’s children.” The earliest of the four gospels (Mark) didn’t get written down until around 70 – nearly four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. So the Bible is more like a library than a single narrative and in that library are the recollected experiences of God’s people through time and in different places.

Now this is a sermon, not a Bible study. But if you are still with me, then let me push this just a little bit further before I move along. We heard from Paul’s letter today to the Church in Rome. Paul’s letters were actually written before the gospels. This one was written to those first-century followers of Jesus in Rome, the hub of the Roman Empire, far from the Sea of Galilee and the holy city of Jerusalem. The word had spread that far about Jesus who was crucified, dead and buried and on the third day rose from the dead. They didn’t have church buildings; they gathered in homes. But they did something like what we do. They read from Scripture, although as already mentioned, at that point it was just the Old Testament. They sang psalms. The reflected on how that Word of the Lord related to them. And then they broke the bread and shared the cup.

When Paul writes those words to them he is trying to help them to think about what it means to be the Church, and only later does the Church decide his words might be helpful to future generations, so they become part of what we call the New Testament. Are you with me? I know this is heavy lifting for “welcome back Sunday!”

I think most of us recognize all that I’ve said about Paul’s Letters as true but we’re more prone to forget that the same is true of the four gospels, which are not documentaries on the life of Jesus but more like four plays. In other words and this is an important place to come back even if I’ve lost you a bit in taking the scenic route to get here: Christian communities exist before the New Testament does. The New Testament – the gospels, Acts, Paul’s Letters, the other epistles, Revelation – all of it emerges in the latter part of the first-century as they reflect on what it means to be the Church.

We sometimes forget that, but as I said, nothing I’ve said is controversial. (At least not yet!) It’s just helpful to remember that these readings we hear have a context. So even though Jesus is speaking in today’s gospel reading, it’s important to remember that Matthew is remembering these words within a community that claims Jesus as the Christ – a community that gathers around Word and Sacrament week after week. When he explains how communities ought to deal with conflict you can bet that he’s speaking to people who have some experience with that and who probably have faced some challenges.

It’s pretty simple really, and wise. And hard to do. Hard to do in families, in church, and at work. If you have an issue with someone, take it to them and try to work it out face-to-face. Don’t tell somebody else about the issue you have with so-and-so. That is called “triangulation:” you tell Jane about the problem you are having with Joe and the thing is, Jane can’t do anything to help you that problem and Joe can’t do anything because you aren’t talking to him. Take it to the person directly and see if you can’t work it out. And don’t send an angry email after a glass of wine either. Meet up for a cup of coffee and see if you can work it out. Easy stuff, right? Maybe not.

In families, in congregations, and in work places it turns out this is much easier said than done. But always it should be the first step and one might even go so far as to say that we are meant to practice these conflict management skills in congregations like this one so that we get better at it. In vestry meetings and in the altar guild and with conflicts over a sermon the pastor or the Canon to the Ordinary preached, to deal with our concerns face to face. To try to practice honest speaking and lean-in listening.

A lot of times it works. I am here to tell you, it really does. We clear up a lot of misunderstandings when we take the risk of speaking honestly with one another, in love. But sometimes it does not work. Step two: find someone who can be objective and hear you both out. Someone you both trust. See if you can’t work it out that way. That’s not a triangle – you aren’t gossiping to that other person. You are asking them to be a kind of mediator; to hear both sides.

The point here (and it seems to me the experience of Matthew’s community that seeks to follow the risen Christ) is that conflict cannot be ignored or buried under a carpet. That helps no one. Neither does escalating things! If you insult me and I punch you in the nose we are not moving toward reconciliation. So as baptized persons, we practice direct honest open healthy communication. We covenant to work things out…

In my work as a member of the Bishop’s staff, I see way too much conflict avoidance, however. Clergy are sometimes the worst. I see a lot of clergy profiles of people who are looking to work in congregations in this diocese. Someone has clued them in that avoidance is not a great conflict strategy, so they know it in their heads. But it’s a lot harder to put into practice because somewhere along the line, people have been taught to think that think their job in Church is to be nice, which is not exactly the same as showing love. Sometimes love is hard. It takes work. And when we don’t deal with conflict in healthy ways, at home or at work or in church, it goes underground. But eventually it catches up with us.

So that is the word of the Lord Matthew has for us today. And ditto with Paul. His message is the same whether he is writing to the Church in Corinth or Galatia or Rome or Ephesus. God is love. Love God. Love one another. Those who claim hate in the name of God are taking the Lord’s name in vain. It’s that simple. Hate is not of God. If we choose to scapegoat other people because of our own projected fears, well that’s on us! That’s not of God. God is love.

Paul has to remind Christian congregations of this for the same reason that Matthew has to remind his folks of it: because we are prone to amnesia. Because we can get complacent. Wake up, St. Paul says! You know what time it is! It’s time to live what we profess with our lips. It’s time to walk the walk. And what is that walk? It’s about love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love strong enough to face conflicts in the hope of reconciliation; not substituting cheap grace for the hard work of real grace.
Pretty much everything you need to know how about how to be the Church is found in today’s two readings from the New Testament, rooted in two first-century communities, but still relevant here in Rochdale in 2017. I think these texts made it into the Bible because we all know they are true. They are a Word of the Lord and it’s easy to say “thanks be to God” when they are read aloud. They aren’t really very hard to understand. But they are very hard to live. I think this is because people can get under our skin.

For a long time now, I think about sixteen years, I’ve been part of the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist. I take retreat time at the monastery in Cambridge and out at Emery House on the north shore. I meet with a spiritual director regularly, one of the brothers. This summer my spiritual director shared with me that when a novice comes to their community, they tell him that he’ll get a teacher who will help him to grow in faith. Not one who is assigned as a mentor, but an unofficial one. They are excited about this, “oh good, a spiritual teacher!” But then they are told that the teacher will be the brother who most gets on their nerves, the one who most annoys them. Why is this? Because that is the brother who has something to teach them because usually when someone annoys us it’s less about them than it is about us. It’s about how we react to them and how we react tells us something about ourselves.

What if I were to tell you as you gather yourselves up again at the start of a new program year that you all get a teacher here too. That yes, congregations can be like families, as I am told in every single parish in this diocese. But most Thanksgiving Dinners I’ve been too are, at best, “complicated.” Sometimes people get on one another’s nerves in families. But what if we see these as teachable moments? As opportunities to learn something about ourselves? As means toward reconciliation and healing and growing into the full stature of Christ and therefore of building authentic Christian community, not something fake but very real.

As you begin a new year here at Christ Church, I invite you to practice these things together. Continue to be patient and kind and gentle with yourselves and with your still-new priest and with one another. Keep at it. Do not lose heart. Stay awake. Because the world needs for us to learn how to be the Church, now more than ever: in Charlottesville, and in Houston, and in Florida, and right here in Rochdale too. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day Rumination

One of the best reasons I know to have written prayers, in addition to extemporaneous ones, is that written ones can be internalized over time. We come back to them again and again. And as we learn them by heart and they sink in, by God's grace we slowly begin to live them.

The collect for Labor Day in The Book of Common Prayer goes like this:
Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 
There must be twenty or thirty (or a hundred) ruminations that might come from this prayer: one might pray for work that brings dignity, for the common good, for a fair minimum wage, for labor unions, for the unemployed and the underemployed...  Over the years as a parish priest I tended to deviate from the lectionary for this weekend to focus on this day's readings on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. (Don't tell the bishop or the liturgical police!) To me this day matters a lot and it is rich with possibilities.

But I want to focus today on just one little phrase: "you have so linked our lives with one another..." I think that this is true. I also think it's counter-cultural. Another Anglican poet/priest once said, "no man is an island." But in the United States of America - this land I love - this sounds quite counter-cultural. Capitalism insists what we earn is ours; ours by our own "hard work." If others would work as hard...

This is bullshit. That is the technical theological term for it; from the German. It's idolatry. People who clean toilets work hard and they don't get paid what corrupt Wall Street bankers do.

People of God believe that gifts are given from God to be used for the common good. We deserve a fair return for our labor, but so do all the other laborers upon whom we depend. We are linked together. The migrant worker - whether s/he has papers or not - is linked to us whenever we eat a peach or an apple. So, too, the people of Houston, and Charlottesville, and Flint.

I followed the comments today on a friend's Facebook page: he was protesting on behalf of those he called undocumented neighbors. One of his "friends" said that he was speaking of law-breakers and should say the "right" term: illegal alien. I'll leave it to you, my reader, to imagine how the "conversation" unfolded. But how we speak of people matters and shapes our narratives and whether or not we see our lives as linked together.

The prayer for today says we are linked together. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this and that this linking is not limited to those within the borders of nation-states. I love it that people from Mexico were helping out their neighbors in Texas this past week. We are bound together, and we share the image of Christ. My friend is right: undocumented neighbor is not politically correct. It's theologically correct. It's just true!

Let us, then, give thanks on this day for all work, and for lives that are all tied up together. For good, and for ill.